New Prime Minister Could Signal A Change In Direction For Australia’s Climate Efforts

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott on left; new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on right CREDIT: PATRICK SMITH/AP PHOTO
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott on left; new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on right CREDIT: PATRICK SMITH/AP PHOTO

Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who once publicly said “the climate change argument is absolute crap,” was defeated in a leadership battle Monday evening.

His replacement, Malcolm Turnbull, requested a Liberal Party leadership ballot to challenge Abbott amid flagging poll numbers. In a vote of 54 to 44, Turnbull displaced Abbott as leader of the actually-conservative Liberal Party, meaning Turnbull became Australia’s 29th prime minister.

The question for many around the world is whether Turnbull will be more progressive on climate or energy policy than Abbott was.

In 2009, the Liberal Party was out of power and Turnbull lost his leadership position to Abbott by one vote, in part because of Turnbull’s support for a carbon emissions trading scheme. At the time, the Labor Party was in power and making big strides on climate change, investing in renewable energy and instituting a carbon price. Abbott helped to foment and then rode a backlash against the carbon price into power in 2013, winning a majority and a prime ministership with a catchy slogan: “Axe the Tax.”


Giles Parkinson, editor of the Australian climate blog RenewEconomy, told ThinkProgress that Abbott’s ouster was “a blessed relief” because his policies were “dominated by a climate science denying far right.”

Indeed, Abbott has made headlines by saying coal is “good for humanity,” laughing at one of his minister’s jokes about Pacific island nations facing sea level rise, and more substantively, cutting support for renewables and successfully gutting his country’s emissions trading policy (ETS). In Abbott’s first year, renewable investment dropped below Algeria, Myanmar, Thailand, and Uruguay.

In Abbott’s sign-off speech, he did not mention energy or climate change in lists of things he was proud of nor goals he still wanted to accomplish, beyond a more general statement that “Labor’s bad taxes are gone.”

Status Quo?

But on first glance, it seems there would not be much change from Abbott to Turnbull. In the press conference following Monday’s vote, Turnbull said he would follow existing Liberal Party policy. His new deputy, Julie Bishop, added that Australia had already set its 2020 emissions reduction target, with the implication that there was not much additional work to do.


Abbott’s plan to address climate change passed last year in the form of a “direct action plan,” essentially a fund of a couple billion dollars that provides competitive grants to organizations or businesses that would voluntarily reduce their emissions. Many have criticized this as seriously inadequate and expensive for what it would achieve, yet Turnbull said Monday night that the current “climate policy is one that has been very well designed, a very, very good piece of work.”

Political journalist Malcolm Farr wrote that though Turnbull “endorses a market response to carbon reduction,” he “will not impose himself on the existing Abbott programs.”

Christopher Wright, a University of Sydney business school professor who focuses on societal responses to climate change, told ThinkProgress that because of this Turnbull is unlikely to change policies “unless he won a new term in government and then we might see the Coalition move towards support for an ETS — which Turnbull is known to support.”

Addition by Subtraction

Yet Turnbull had previously articulated a conservative case for acting to confront climate change. In 2009 he dubbed Tony Abbott’s climate change policy “bullshit” in a Sydney Morning Herald article. He used the term to describe Abbott’s contention that he had a plan to cut emissions without a cost, criticizing those in the party who refute mainstream climate science.

“Many Liberals are rightly dismayed that on this vital issue of climate change we are not simply without a policy, without any prospect of having a credible policy but we are now without integrity,” Turnbull wrote. “We have given our opponents the irrefutable, undeniable evidence that we cannot be trusted.” He went on to say he supported the emissions trading system.


At the Monday night press conference, he acknowledged that with regard to the Abbott government climate policy, he supported the policy as a minister, yet “policies are reviewed and adapted all the time.”

Turnbull is the first former environment minister to be prime minister of Australia. A businessman and lawyer, he was elected to his seat in the suburbs of eastern Sydney in 2004.

“Turnbull will change the focus, but he will have to do it gradually”

“Turnbull will change the focus, but he will have to do it gradually,” Parkinson said. “That means tightening the rules around Direct Action, although it seems clear that this policy will have to be dumped, particularly if there is success in Paris.”

Earlier this year, Turnbull said that Australia “should take a prudent, cautious, insurance approach, and say, we should seek to restrain the growth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, insofar as we can, in order to offset that chance.”

“For renewables, it is very positive,” Parkinson said. “Abbott and his key players hated renewables — wind energy in particular. Turnbull likes them, and his leadership should provide a lot of heart for investors in wind and solar, and will also mean that institutions like the Clean Energy Finance Corp, ARENA and the climate change authority will be retained.”

Though Australia’s U.N. commitments to cutting carbon emissions will likely stay weak, they aren’t likely to get worse under Turnbull.

What’s Next

The question of what a Turnbull government does on energy and climate policy may hinge more on how strong his coalition within his party stands, what the polls tell him about his national popularity, and whether the opposition Labor Party fields a strong candidate to challenge Turnbull in a possible national election this year.

“Labor’s leader Bill Shorten has already proclaimed that climate change would be a central issue in the next federal election,” Wright said. They would likely advocate for a market-based emissions trading policy, avoiding anything that could be called a carbon tax. Their emissions targets would be better than Abbott’s, but aren’t likely to be very strong. Many in the Labor Party support coal exports.

Labor could look to change leaders under the assumption that Shorten would lose to Turnbull in an election, something Rupert Murdoch tweeted Monday. Parkinson said the “timing of the election will depend on polls in next few weeks.”

A new election is important for any serious change in policy because of the way the current government coalition is composed. The right wing of Turnbull’s coalition will likely oppose any movement on climate policy.

“Key right-wing powerbrokers such as former Senator Nick Minchin were the key architects of Abbott’s successful former challenge to Turnbull in 2009 specifically over the issue of climate change,” Wright said. “The vote for the leadership was only 54–44 (or thereabouts) and there will be those who seek to maintain the war on the environment, renewables, and climate denial.”

Whichever direction Turnbull goes, one thing is for sure: climate hawks will not have Tony Abbott to kick around anymore.